Bringing a touch of vibrancy to this seventeenth-century stop-off in the Proms Chamber Music survey of 800 years of music – not only aurally but visually, with Mariana Flores in a swishing, sparkling, salmon-pink full-length dress – this must have surely been the first lunchtime Prom devoted to women composers (well, Venetian woman composers at least). There were two – Barbara Strozzi, born 400 years ago; and her slightly younger Venetian compatriot Antonia Bembo – with one addition from Bembo’s teacher (and possibly Strozzi’s as well), Francesco Cavalli.
Flores, who sang every item except the second Bembo piece, which we heard transcribed for recorder (though you could still follow the words as they were printed in the programme), was joined by Capella Mediterranea and Leonardo García Alarcón. He was in charge of what initially looked like a hybrid instrument with two keyboards one on top of each other, although on closer inspection this was simply an expedience that rested the harpsichord manuals on the chamber organ, so that he could play both instruments at the same time.
The 400-year-old birthday girl topped and tailed the programme and her four ‘songs’ were interspersed with the two Bembo pieces (acting as light relief) and one from Cavalli. Petroc Trelawny interviewed Flores about her discovering Strozzi in 2008, and her delight in helping re-establishing Strozzi’s place in musical history. Famed for her ability to encompass a whole gamut of emotions in her pieces, the four here were obviously chosen to prove the point. Tragic they may ostensibly be, but Strozzi can rise to emotional heights, short sections or episodes revelling in quicksilver turns of mood, effortlessly negotiated by Flores with a voice that can float one moment and turn hard as steel the next. They are like “bonsai operas” and, even while we were given no context to each setting, their sense of anguish and turmoil shone through. I was intrigued, from the translations, that two at least were reverse-trouser roles – man singing woman – and the other two ambiguous. But that Strozzi was bringing personal feeling into her composition there seems no doubt.
The opening Secret Love started like Monteverdi’s closing duet (‘Pur ti miro, Pur ti godo’) from The Coronation of Poppea with gentle triple-time strumming on guitar and archlute. Often those instruments teamed up with the harp, with cello acting as continuo with organ/harpsichord and recorder adding at times a burbling countermelody. Rodrigo Calvera also swapped to the curved cornetto, much more strained-sounding, adding a pointed emotional gloss, though it was the recorder’s more mellifluous side that featured in the Bembo transcription, affording Flores a short break.
Bembo’s first piece (both were from her ‘Harmonic Productions’) offered a short, almost spitefully comic turn, Flores spitting out the words. Cavalli’s ‘And will Venus’ from his 1662 opera Hercules in Love was equally full of intemperance, here Juno railing against rival Venus over her treatment of Hercules, rage taking centre-stage rather than tragedy.
All in all this was an engrossing hour, which transported us back to Venice in the seventeenth-century. Slightly overrunning, it meant that BBC Radio 3 had stopped broadcasting when Flores announced an encore – skipping forward 350 years to 1969 for a sad tale from her Argentinean homeland (Ariel Ramírez & Félix Luna's Alfonsina y el Mar), intimate and eloquent and unusually accompanied by two archlutes.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms